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Inside Bayer Leverkusen's Extraordinary Bundesliga Success Story

Inside Bayer Leverkusen's Extraordinary Bundesliga Success Story

At the start of the 2023/24 season, Bayer Leverkusen were an exciting prospect, strengthened by promising new signings and boasting one of Europe's most exciting young coaches. However, no one expected them to take the Bundesliga by storm in the way that they have. Throughout their history, the club have been viewed by many as perennial under-achievers, with their lack of trophies — to date, they have never won the Bundesliga title — causing them to be jokingly nicknamed 'Neverkusen' by some German football fans.

But things are changing. At the time of writing, Leverkusen are top of the table, with a whopping 13-point lead over their closest rivals Bayern Munich. What makes this title charge even more surprising is the extent of Bayern's dominance in German football over recent years, with the current champions having notched up 11 straight league wins prior to this campaign.

The style of play that has propelled Leverkusen to the top of the division has been praised by fans and pundits across Europe, and at this late stage it would take a huge swing in fortunes for Xabi Alonso's side to lose out on their first-ever major trophy. So how have they managed to get to this point?

In this article, we'll be exploring the remarkable rise of Bayer Leverkusen, diving into the key factors that have allowed them to progress so rapidly, exploring coaching and tactics, transfer market dealings and player development. In a season that has seen multiple surprise packages challenging at the top of European football, Bayer Leverkusen are without doubt the most exciting story of all.

A Brief History of Bayer Leverkusen

Bayer Leverkusen are different to many other German clubs. Situated in West Germany, they were founded in 1904 as a factory team representing the workers of the local pharmaceutical company Bayer AG, and to this day they are owned by the pharmaceutical business, operating outside Germany's '50+1' club ownership model.

The club are granted an exception to the 50+1 rule (which protects fan ownership by preventing private investors acquiring a majority share in a club), because when the law was brought in, the club's owners had "provided significant and uninterrupted financial support to a football team for 20 years" prior. 

In their early years, the club mostly played in Germany's lower leagues, reaching the second tier in 1936 and the top tier of West German football in 1951 (named the Oberliga West at the time). Leverkusen were then relegated and confined to the second tier for a number of years, before making their debut in the restructured Bundesliga in 1979. By the mid-1980s, the club had established themselves as a top-tier side, and they've remained in the Bundesliga ever since. However, despite finishing as runners-up on five separate occasions, Leverkusen have never won the German title — no club has finished 2nd as many times as them without securing the trophy.

This all looks likely to change, though. In recent years, Leverkusen have built up a reputation as a club capable of consistently qualifying for European competitions and developing world-class players to be sold on for serious profit. Over the last few seasons, they've signed, developed and sold a wide range of talents including Kai Havertz, Leon Bailey, Heung-min Son and Moussa Diaby.

It's an impressive roster, but over the last few months the club have begun transitioning from a well-run seller club to a team on the cusp of a historic title win. But what are the key factors that have led them to this point?

Europe's Most Exciting Young Coach

It makes sense to start with the man at the helm: Xabi Alonso. The 42-year-old Spaniard, a former World Cup, European Championship and Champions Leagu-winning player, has been a revelation at Leverkusen. And maybe it shouldn't be a surprise; as a player, Alonso showed signs of all the tools needed to be a top coach. His footballing brain and tactical intelligence was excellent, and his leadership skills exemplary.

He played under an array of hugely influential and successful modern coaches such as Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez, plying his trade in Europe's top three leagues (the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and German Bundesliga) and acquiring a range of skills and experiences that have helped turn him into one of the most promising young managers in Europe.

That being said, before this season Alonso's coaching experience at the top level was extremely limited. After retiring and earning his coaching badges, the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich midfielder worked in the youth set-up at Madrid before being handed the Head Coach role at Real Sociedad B. Leverkusen is his first ever senior post, and ever since he was appointed in October 2022, the club has been on an upward trajectory.

Alonso steered the team out of the relegation zone after a disappointing start to the season and guided them to a sixth-place finish in 2022/23, also reaching the semi-finals of the Europa League (where they were knocked out by Mourinho's Roma).

This campaign, he's transformed them into one of the most exciting sides in the world. Key to his success has been the implementation of a cleverly-designed tactical blueprint.

Intelligent Tactics

Surpassing Bayern in the Bundesliga is always a difficult task, and in recent years there have been many examples of clubs challenging throughout the season but losing the title at the last moment (Borussia Dortmund being the most recent case in point).

However, the numbers suggest that Leverkusen have what it takes to go all the way. Across the 2023/24 campaign so far, the club have consistently created a high number of chances, and crucially, they've consistently converted those chances, thanks to their excellent attacking set-up. 

Typically, Alonso's team will split into a defensive five and an attacking five, and up front they can be absolutely electric, a reality showcased in their recent 3-0 demolition of Bayern Munich. Going forwards, Leverkusen typically have two players operating in Number 10 positions, who combine with advanced attacking wing-backs to create a fluid 3-4-2-1 shape.

Consistency in the starting XI has been massive in ensuring that this tactical gameplan is effective; substitutions are kept to a minimum and Alonso relies on a strong core that blends experience with flair (more on this shortly).

Given Alonso's reputation as one of the greatest passing midfielders of his generation, it's no surprise that Leverkusen are heavily possession-based, regularly racking up over 70% of possession in league matches. But it's not passing for passing's sake; Leverkusen play a fast, purposeful passing game with a focus on moving the opposition around in a Guardiola-esque fashion.

They have recorded sequences of 10+ passes on more occasions than any other club in the Bundesliga this season, and typically they build steadily into the final third before focusing on sharp cut backs inside the penalty area, rather than crosses.

Intelligent Transfer Dealings

Alonso's advanced tactical system is reliant on the quality of his playing personnel; thankfully, an inspired summer of recruitment in 2023 left him with one of the Bundesliga's strongest squads. The €20m signing of Nigerian international striker Victor Boniface from Union Saint-Gilloise was a sign of intent, and the young forward has been a revelation, scoring 16 goals from 23 appearances in all competitions so far this season.

Sporting director Simon Rolfes also added experience with the signings of former Arsenal stalwart Granit Xhaka, Alejandro Grimaldo from Benfica, and Jonas Hoffman from Borussia Monchengladbach.

Before these key arrivals, Leverkusen already had a squad full of potential. Young central defenders Piero Hincapie and Edmond Tapsoba were showing huge promise at the back, while the team's flying wing-back system was allowing other youngsters like Jeremie Frimpong to shine. However, perhaps the pick of the bunch this season has been the young German attacking midfielder Florian Wirtz.

According to European football expert Andy Brassell, "of all the successes of Xabi Alonso at Leverkusen this season, platforming Florian Wertz is one of the biggest. The freedom he gets in that team, he will get in very few other teams. The athleticism of others allows Wirtz off the chain, to dribble where he wants to, to wander where he wants to, to impact the game where he best sees fit."

Bayern's Drop-Off

At the time of writing, Bayer Leverkusen have played 27 league matches and are still unbeaten, a remarkable statistic that is a testament to the organisation, discipline and quality of the side that Alonso has put together.

On top of this, they have performed admirably in the UEFA Europa League, with a very winnable semi-final lined up against West Ham in the coming weeks. And while Leverkusen deserve full credit for reaching this point, it would be remiss of us to dive deep into the 2023/24 Bundesliga campaign without analysing how their main title rivals Bayern Munich have failed to deliver.

The loss of Bayern CEO Oliver Khan and board director of sport Hasan Salihamidzic in the summer has had a major impact on the fortunes of the club. The high-profile signing of Harry Kane may have grabbed headlines and improved Bayern's firepower up top, but in recent transfer windows other clear gaps in the side have not been filled, most notably the holding midfielder role.

As a result, Bayern have continually looked vulnerable this season, and their defensive record is far worse than their title rivals', with 33 goals conceded compared to Leverkusen's 19. This evident weakness has lessened the impact of Kane's scoring exploits — he's notched 31 goals already and is on course to break Robert Lewandowski's record of 41 goals in a single Bundesliga season — and the team's general firepower (they have a league-high 78 goals).

There is still plenty of football to be played, but at this late stage it would take an incredible turnaround for Leverkusen to fall off and fail to secure their first ever Bundesliga title. A huge amount of respect should be paid to Xabi Alonso and the team he has helped build at Bayer Leverkusen. If you'd like to find out about another European side who have massively exceeded expectations this season, check out our in-depth guide to the success story of FC Girona.